If the Russian military, despite its boasts, failed to kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a May 28 airstrike, one American officer can certainly sympathize.
As he outlines in his new book, “Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies” (Dey Street), Brett Velicovich was part of a mission that came tantalizingly close to making the capture years earlier — only to miss by minutes.
Velicovich, who co-authored the book with journalist Christopher S. Stewart, was part of Delta Force, an undercover Army intelligence unit, and Velicovich’s specialty was operating surveillance drones.
In 2010, his unit hunted al-Baghdadi for months, launching more than 30 missions in an attempt to capture him. As they picked off and interrogated al-Baghdadi’s associates, Velicovich writes, the terror leader went underground.
Call him the man who can’t be killed.
According to the BBC, al-Baghdadi is likely a native Iraqi who was detained by US forces for four years during the early days of the Iraq War. Reports suggest he may have already been a militant during Saddam Hussein’s rule, or could have been radicalized while in US custody.
He is said to have risen to power in al Qaeda in Iraq, a group that eventually morphed into the Islamic State, in around 2010. He was officially declared a terrorist by the US government in October 2011, and a $10 million reward was offered for “information leading to his capture or death.”
Trying to locate al-Baghdadi — reportedly a fake name — has been a puzzle for the United States. He maintains public silence for long periods of time, addresses his supporters infrequently via audio or video, and wears a mask when he chooses the latter.
For Velicovich, who refers to him as Abu Dua, he was the most elusive target.
“We hunted Abu Dua for months, pressured sources and captives, put more drones in the sky for eyes that never blinked,” he writes.
“Our team conducted more than 32 raids that specifically aimed to uncover him. Most were chasing leads to his whereabouts or capturing people in his inner circle, attempts at tightening the noose around his neck. We would get word that he was running around with some target of ours during his daily terrorism duties . . . Then, boom, that other guy with him was suddenly gone, in our custody or dead. Imagine everyone in your circle of friends and family . . . slowly disappearing one by one over the course of a couple of months. I forced him underground and got closer to ending his reign than anyone else. But we were always just one step behind him.”
Constantly searching for him through their drone feed, Velicovich and his unit learned that al-Baghdadi had been known to frequent a local ice-cream parlor, meeting his fighters there on Thursdays.
“What a sick joke,” one of Velicovich’s colleagues said. “A terrorist who loves a good ice-cream sundae.”
“I imagined him talking to his hired killers about the next massacre over strawberry milkshakes and getting the ice-cream foam on his beard,” Velicovich writes. Still, they were never able to catch him there.
They uncovered a steady stream of background intelligence on al-Baghdadi, but kept missing him, despite leads galore. This weighed heavily on Velicovich.
“[He] really got to me. More than any other target, I felt something twisting inside me, eating at me, as we flew drones and looked for him over those days and weeks.
“The drone feeds of the places where we tracked him burned deeply in my mind: A crumbling tower in downtown Iraq; a mud hut in the north; a packed apartment building in the south, a white truck bumping across the desert, filled with explosives. The feed . . . churned though my head like a bad song I couldn’t shake,” Velicovich writes.
Velicovich, who was raised in Katy, Texas, was a freshman at the University of Houston dreaming of a career in high finance, until 9/11 shifted his focus. He joined the Army the following year, and rose up the military-intelligence ladder until being recruited by Delta.
The training was intense and brutal. Recruits called one of their schools Camp Slappy “because of the interrogation training.”
“I was tied up and blindfolded, and beaten up, just how you’d imagine it,” Velicovich writes. “The program was meant to prepare us in case of our capture by an enemy state — and train us to escape. I learned how to pick locks and get out of handcuffs.”
Velicovich and his fellow recruits also suffered The Box, where, “we were individually locked in dark wooden containers for what seemed like days. Shoulder to shoulder, with no room to sit down. They blared rock music and sounds of babies crying. One by one, they pulled us out and interrogated us for hours.”
He was eventually stationed in Iraq, where his long hunt for al-Baghdadi began.
At one point, Velicovich discovered the home of al-Baghdadi’s brother Jawwad. Normally, combat teams on the ground would coordinate with the drone teams, but for this, an operational commander decided to work with Iraqi security forces instead.
Surveilling the house, they discovered there were around 20 people living there, including Jawwad and another of al-Baghdadi’s brothers, but they couldn’t tell if al-Baghdadi himself was in the house.
The decision was made to conduct a raid, but just as the assault team began to head out, they were thrown by a man leaving the house and driving away. They couldn’t tell who it was, and only had one drone in the sky. A quick decision needed to be made, and they decided to keep the drone surveilling the house.
“It was the wrong move,” Velicovich writes in the book, whose movie rights have been optioned for “Transformers” director Michael Bay.
When the team hit the house, al-Baghdadi wasn’t there — and now, neither was Jawwad.
“We later found out that the local Iraqi police forces working with us had tipped off the family,” he writes, “allowing Jawwad to escape minutes before.”
Making the miss more painful was the fact that Velicovich and his unit had several other close calls. Velicovich would later learn that an earlier raid, then perceived to be a success for nabbing several enemy operatives, missed al-Baghdadi by 10 minutes.
Then, the following year, one of Velicovich’s mentors, Jack, came close once again, having identified the house where al-Baghdadi was hiding.
“Jack’s plan was to take him out that night,” Velicovich writes, “but the State Department had changed the rules for raids and a planned raid on the target was delayed.”
With new rules in place, operatives now needed approval for their missions from several layers of Washington bureaucracy, and this could take days or even weeks.
“Jack tasked a drone over the house,” Velicovich writes, “and watched as a man exhibiting the exact same signature and description we always had for [al-Baghdadi] arrived in a vehicle and proceeded inside.”
They soon confirmed via drone camera that it was al-Baghdadi, but Jack couldn’t get approval to take him out quickly enough.
“Jack’s drone team now fell under the suits at the agency and State Department instead of the Department of Defense,” Velicovich writes. “So he had to convince them to move on the target. But his request to strike that night passed from empty suit to suit as he watched [al-Baghdadi] at the house.”
Jack even called his bosses several times that night, pleading his case. But it took a week to get approval for the mission. By then, al-Baghdadi was long gone.
Velicovich has since left the military, using his expertise to launch Dronepire, a company that uses drones for animal conservation and humanitarian efforts.
“It had taken a long time . . . to realize drones didn’t only have to be about counter-terrorism and killing bad guys,” he writes. “I had the power to use drones for more important things than war.”
Credit: NY Post